The Different Conceptions of the Veil in The Souls of Black Folk
"For now we see through a glass, darkly"
W.E.B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, a collection of autobiographical and historical essays contains many themes. There is the theme of souls and their attainment of consciousness, the theme of double consciousness and the duality and bifurcation of black life and culture; but one of the most striking themes is that of "the veil." The veil provides a link between the 14 seemingly unconnected essays that make up The Souls of Black Folk. Mentioned at least once in most of the 14 essays it means that, "the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world, -a world with yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."Footnote1 The veil is a metaphor for the separation and invisibility of black life and existence in America and is a reoccurring theme in books about black life in America.
Du Bois's veil metaphor, "In those somber forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, -darkly as though through a veil"Footnote2, is a allusion to Saint Paul's line in Isiah 25:7, "For now we see through a glass, darkly."Footnote3 Saint Paul's use of the veil in Isiah and later in Second Corinthians is similar to Du Bois's use of the metaphor of the veil. Both writers claim that as long as one is wrapped in the veil their attempts to gain self-consciousness will fail because they will always see the image of themselves reflect back to them by others. Du Bois applies this by claiming that as long as on is behind the veil the, "world which yields him no self-consciousness but who only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world."Footnote4 Saint Paul in Second Corinthians says the way to self consciousness and an understanding lies in, "the veil being taken away, Now the lord is the spirit and where the spirit of the lord is there is liberty." Du Bois does not claim that transcending the veil will lead to a better understanding of the lord but like Saint Paul he finds that only through transcending "the veil" can people achieve liberty and gain self-consciousness.
The veil metaphor in Souls of Black Folk is symbolic of the invisibility of blacks in America. Du Bois says that Blacks in America are a forgotten people, "after the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil."Footnote5 The invisibility of Black existence in America is one of the reasons why Du Bois writes Souls of Black Folk in order to elucidate the "invisible" history and strivings of Black Americans, "I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive."Footnote6 Du Bois in each of the following chapters tries to manifest the strivings of Black existence from that of the reconstruction period to the black spirituals and the stories of rural black children that he tried to educate. Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk is grappling with trying to establish some sense of history and memory for Black Americans, Du Bois struggles in the pages of the book to prevent Black Americans from becoming a Seventh Son invisible to the rest of the world, hidden behind a veil of prejudice, "Hear my Cry, O God the reader vouch safe that this my book fall not still born into the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle one, from its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful."Footnote7
The invisibility of Black existence is a recurring theme in other books about Black history. In Raboteau's book slave religion is called, "the invisible institution of the antebellum South."Footnote8 Raboteau tries to uncover and bring to light the religious practices of Black slaves, he tried to bring their history out of the veil. Rabatoeu writes how religion for slaves was a way in which, "slaves maintained their identity as persons despite a system bent on reducing them to a subhuman level... In the midst of slavery religion was for the enslaved a space of meaning, freedom, and transcendence."Footnote9 Because slave religion was an invisible institution hidden by a veil from white slave masters it provided a way in which slaves could resist social death. The history of Black women is also the history of a people made invisible; hidden behind the veil. Bell Hooks in her study of Black women and feminism tries to bring to light the forgotten past of black women who have also been hidden behind a veil, " Traditionally, scholars have emphasized the impact of slavery on the black male consciousness, arguing that black men more so than black women were the real victims of slavery."Footnote10 To Bell Hooks the veil which makes black women invisible to white society is made from an inseparable cloth woven from the threads of racism and sexism. The Black reconstruction period is another area in which scholars have grappled with the consequences of the veil which has hidden the history of black striving and struggle from view. Eric Foner's book on the reconstruction was the first major study of the period since Du Bois's book on the period fifty years earlier.Footnote11 The reconstruction which Foner terms America's unfinished revolution could also be called American invisible revolution due to the lack of scholarship on the area.
The most striking examples of the theme of the veil and invisibility is in literature about Blacks struggling with their identity and with oppression. In Beloved Setha's rational for killing her child can not be understood by the white police system which sentence her to prison. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man the main character says, "I am an invisible man, No I am not a spook like those that haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasm's. I am a man of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible understand because people refuse to see me."Footnote12 Ralph Ellison's invisible man like the history of black women, slavery, reconstruction, and many other elements of black life are hidden behind "the veil" making them invisible to much of society.
The veil is also a metaphor for the separation both physically and psychologically of blacks and whites America. Physically the veil separates blacks and whites through Slavery, Jim Crow laws, economic inequality, and the voluntary segregation that followed the end of the civil war. The veil acts as a physical barrier that permanently brands black Americans as an "other"; the veil is the metaphorical manifestation of the train tracks that divide the black and white parts of town. Du Bois in Chapter two lays out the creation of the veil from the end of the civil war to the failure of reconstruction. The following chapters then tell of those who have acted to strengthen the veil such as Booker T. Washington or who suffered behind the veil such as the school children Du Bois taught.
The veil also acts as a psychological barrier separating blacks from whites. The theme of the psychological separation of blacks and whites is a central metaphor of the book starting with the first lines where Du Bois recalls his encounters with whites who view him not as a person but as a problem, "They half approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly how does it feel to be a problem? They say, I know an Excellent colored man in my town."Footnote13 The veil in this case hides the humanity of blacks which has important implications to the types of relations that developed between blacks and whites. With their humanity hidden behind "the veil" black and white relations at the time of the writing of the Souls of Black Folk were marked by violence: draft riots in New York during the Civil War, riots following the reconstruction period, the lynching of Blacks, and the formation of the Klu Klux Klan.Footnote14
The theme of separation caused by the veil is repeated in many other black texts. In Raboteau's book slave religious practices were separate from white religious practices.Footnote15 Although many time slaves and their masters worshipped together religion during the slavery period provided to very separate things for master and slaves. For the master religion was a way to justify slaveryFootnote16 and for slaves religion became a form of resistance and hope; a way to resist social death. In Eric Foner's book on reconstruction a veil separated black and white interpretations of reconstruction.Footnote17 For blacks reconstruction was a time of hope and freedom; for whites reconstruction was a time in which the north repressed a defeated region, with ignorant former slaves, who unable to act constructively for themselves were pawns of the northern intruders. The veil, a metaphor for separation both physically and psychologically hides the humanity of blacks, and created deep divisions between the races.
Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk unlike other blacks is able to move around the veil, operate behind it, lift it, and even transcend it. In the forethought Du Bois tells the reader that in the following chapters he has, "Stepped with in the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, -the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls."Footnote18 Du Bois in the first Chapter steps outside the veil to reveal the origin and his awareness of the veil. And it is Du Bois's awareness of the veil that allows him to step outside of it and reveal the history of the Negro, "his two-ness, -an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body."Footnote19 Now that he has lifted the veil in the following chapters Du Bois shows his white audience the history of the Black man following reconstruction, the origins of the black church. Du Bois then talks about the conditions of individuals living behind the veil from his first born son who, "With in the veil was he born, said I; and there with in shall he live, -a Negro and a Negro's son.... I saw the shadow of the veil as it passed over my baby, I saw the cold city towering above the blood read land."Footnote20 In this passage Du Bois is both with in and above the veil. He is a Negro living like his baby within the veil but he is also above the veil, able to see it pass over his child. After Du Bois's child dies he prays that it will, "sleep till I sleep, and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet-above the veil."Footnote21 Here Du Bois is living above the veil but in the following Chapter he once again travels behind the veil to tell the story of Alexander Crummell a black man who for, "fourscore years had he wondered in this same world of mine, within the Veil."Footnote22 Du Bois then in the last Chapter "Sorrow Songs" travels back into the veil from which he came, to return to the spiritual. Du Bois's ability to move around the veil could create some confusion as to whether the writer is black. For this reason Du Bois says in his introduction says that, "I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the veil."Footnote23 Du Bois's ability to move in and out of the veil gives him the ability to expose to whites that which is obscured from their view. It also lends Du Bois authority when speaking about his subject matter for he alone in the book is able to operate on both sides of the veil.
In the Chapter on "Sorrow Songs" Du Bois implores the reader to rise above the veil, "In his good time America shall rend the veil and the prisoner shall go free."Footnote24 Du Bois likens the veil to a prison that traps Blacks from achieving progress and freedom. According to Du Bois the veil causes Blacks to accept the false images that whites see of Blacks. Du Bois although not explicitly in Souls of Black Folk critique's Booker T. Washington for accepting the veil and accepting white's ideas of Blacks. Booker T. Washington an accomidationist accepts the white idea that blacks are problem people; not a people with a problem caused by white racism.Footnote25 Booker T. Washington seeks to work behind the veil by pursuing polices of accommodation. Du Bois in contrast wants blacks to transcend the veil by politically agitating and educating themselves.
Du Bois's conception of the veil contradicts some of the other theme's in Souls of Black Folk. First, how can the problem of the twentieth century be that of the color-line when blacks are invisible behind a veil of prejudice? Second, how can Du Bois speak from behind the veil as he does in parts of certain chapters and yet present a resemble critique of society? Third, how can the veil both make blacks invisible and separate them at the same time and make the separations so apparent to society. Fourth, how can Du Bois say blacks are gifted with "second sight" when Du Bois says blacks are looking at their past and present through a veil? And Fifth, Du Bois's prescription for lifting the veil, education and political activism, are only small steps to lifting the stifling iron veil that keeps blacks invisible and separated from white America. Du Bois's metaphor has limitations and internal contradictions; but these internal contradictions are minor compared to the power that "the veil" has as a symbol of black existence in America.
The veil in Souls of Black Folk is a metaphor that connotes the invisibility of black America, the separation between whites and blacks, and the obstacles that blacks face in gaining self-consciousness in a racist society. The veil is also a metaphor that reoccurs in other novels about black strivings. The veil is not a two dimensional cloth to Du Bois but instead it is a three dimensional prison that prevent blacks from seeing themselves as they are but instead makes them see the negative stereotypes that whites have of them.Footnote26 The veil is also to Du Bois both a blind fold and a noose on the existence of "ten thousand thousand" Americans who live and strive invisible and separated from their white brothers and sisters. Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folks to lift the veil and show the pain and sorrow of a striving people. Like Saint Paul's letter to the Corinthians Du Bois's "letter" to the American people urges people not to live behind the veil but to live above it.
So, wed with truth,
I dwell above the Veil.
Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?
-W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Company, 1989) 3.
Arnold Rampersad, Slavery and the literary imagination: Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989) 104-125. Rampersad in his book says that Du Bois's metaphor of the veil is an allusion to Saint Paul's letter to the Corinthians.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Company, 1989) 3.
Albert Rabatoteau, Slave Religion: The invisible institution "in the Antebellum South" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) 212-318.
Bell Hooks, Ain't I a Women: black women and feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981) 20.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row Company, 1989) xix-xxvii.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House Publishing, 1990) 3.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Company, 1989) 1.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row Company, 1989) 119.
Albert Rabatoteau, Slave Religion: The invisible institution "in the Antebellum South" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) 294-300. According to Rabatoteau slaves stressed the stores of Exodus and the Sermon on Mount thus providing them with hope in the darkness of slavery.
Slave owners out special emphasis on sections of the Bible which justified slavery, such as the Hamitic Hypothesis, the Apostle Paul's letter to Phileon a slave owner, and the Hebrew Slaves.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row Company, 1989) xxi-xxiv..
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Company, 1989) xxxi.
August Meier, Negro thought in America 1880-1915 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966) 230-232.
Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter (New York: Quill William Morrow, 1984) 184. Paula Giddings points out how black women were stereotyped into three categories, the sexless suffering Aunt Jamima, the seductive temptress Jezebel, and the evil manipulative Sapphire. These are just some of the negative stereotypes of Blacks that formed on the white side of the veil.